Jaren Jackson: The Original Three-and-D
A season hanging by mere fractions more than a second, San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich went to his playbook and turned to, of all people, undrafted rookie free agent Gary Neal.
The release was quick, the shot fell true, and the moment was Neal’s. The audacity of placing such an important shot in the hands of such an unknown was summed up well by our own Graydon Gordian:
“Gary Neal is a rookie, an undrafted rookie. He made his way from an unknown summer league standout into a reliable rotation player, and even onto some Rookie of the Year ballots. Yet, despite his relative lack of notoriety, he managed to summon a steely confidence that many people lack. He was asked to extend the season, a season that, no matter how it ends, will conclude with a wave of emotion the size of which I have not endured since David Robinson retired.”
Yet, that Popovich turned to Neal is of little surprise to anyone who has followed or crossed the Spurs path over the last decade. The past decade is full of big shots from Spurs players, often from relative unknowns. I imagine for opposing fans there was an inherent fear anytime they saw an unfamiliar name line up a big shot.
No need to reach for the media guide to find out who it was, because chances were his middle name was dagger.
But this wasn’t always the case. There was a time when the Spurs role player predictably shrank away from such moments. Back when the offseason finds were Carl Herrera and Charles Smith, and Vinny Del Negro was desperately trying to keep up with Jeff Hornacek.
It took Popovich some time to form the Three-and-D role player archetype that went on to produce multiple championships. At the ground floor, changing perceptions with a quick release, and a shake of his head, was journeyman Jaren Jackson.
Jackson is best remembered — for those that remember him — for shutting down the historic Los Angeles Forum with 22 and 20-point performances. The reserve shooting guard punctuated the Spurs sweep with nail-in-the-coffin-three-pointers and a head shaking celebration that was mimicked by impressionable young fans around San Antonio playgrounds (okay, so maybe just by me).
And while Jackson didn’t hit the biggest shots, and he wasn’t the biggest story, he was a new story — one that has become incorporated into Spurs lore and changed our expectations of the likes of the Danny Greens and Garrett Temples that make their way through San Antonio and Austin.
As the Spurs welcomed Tim Duncan with the no. 1 pick in the NBA draft, Jaren Jackson was coming off another one-year contract, this time with the Washington Bullets, looking for his next job. Looking for a training camp invite, Jackson played for the Spurs summer league squad. The Spurs, he figured, were a perfect opportunity for a player like him.
“It was a situation where they had two big guys I could complement and just be a role player — play aggressive on defense, and Tim and David were going to find me shots,” Jackson said. “It’s very attractive when it comes to guard play; I was just excited to compete.”
Jackson caught the attention of Popovich and his staff, earning a training camp invite and a make good contract. And while eventually he carved out a permanent spot in the rotation, averaging a career-high 27 minutes, it was a long process.
“I think then he was just trying to figure out who I was, what my strengths were, and how to best complement David and Tim,” Jackson said. “My only objective was not to give him a reason to let me go. I did that by understanding the schemes, where to be on the floor, show him that I understood everything expected of me.
“At the same time, I was competing against other players that wanted the spot. There wasn’t too much communication, but I think [Popovich] respected the fact that I understood the game and competed.”
The Spurs team Jackson joined, as he pointed out during our interview, was filled with sharp, intelligent basketball minds — Avery Johnson, Vinny Del Negro, Chuck Person, and Monty Williams have all gone on to coach in the NBA, Jackson currently coaches in the NBL in Canada. But future coaching acumen isn’t the only trait shared. They all had, as Popovich likes to state, “gotten over themselves.”
Three years spent as a reserve, and a starting role player in his senior year, Jaren Jackson left Georgetown with a resume that hardly suggested a long NBA career. With the NBA switching to the two-round format we know today, Jackson went undrafted yet undeterred.
“I was ready for it, and that credit goes to my parents. They taught me to work hard and earn my keep. Nothing was given to me. I knew I wasn’t one of the elite players in my class,” Jackson said. “But I was ready to compete against anyone. I was hungry.
“After that, I went through my career path of one-year contract, the minor leagues, and a lot of coaches and speeches saying, ‘we have to let you go, you’re a good player, but better luck next time.’ That was kind of the makeup of my journey. But I never expected not to have a long career in the NBA. That thought never crossed my mind. Even through those moments I knew at some point my game was going to be respected. That a team was going to appreciate my game for more than just one year. It took a little longer than expected, but I’m glad it happened in San Antonio.”
The Opportunity and Making the Team
The life of a basketball nomad is one lived in constant fear. Unlike those that get to shake David Stern’s hand on draft night, there is no “I made it” moment. Players simply show up for work each day until they’re told not to.
“You know, they really don’t ever tell you that you made the team in the NBA. You just show up. You’ve made the team until you’re told you haven’t. It’s funny; people always asked me what it was like when I made the roster? Well it’s nerve racking,” Jackson said. “You’re always waiting for someone to call you and tell you that you weren’t going to make it, or you’ve been released. It’s not like the reality shows with all the suspense and you get to the last day and it’s like ‘okay, today we’re choosing the last person.”
So Jackson kept showing up, through summer league, to training camp, in practices and shoot arounds, aware that at any point they could tell him not to. If there were any advice he could give in players of similar situations it’s that you can’t make a basketball move while looking over your shoulder.
“I learned a long time ago that’s the worst thing you can do as a player. You just look forward, control what you can control, which is your play. I was never one of those guys who was worried about if I’m going to be here or not, is it going to be me or this guy? I was never concerned with that,” Jackson said. “It wasn’t going to affect me. I’d already been there. I was just going to make it as difficult as possible for Pop to make that call. I paid my dues.”
For players like Jaren Jackson, there never is an “I made it moment.” And even after such a moment seems within reach, it doesn’t take much for it to be put in jeopardy, as Jackson learned after his first year in San Antonio.
Coming off a career season playing rotation minutes for a contender, all seemed to be well for Jackson. But then, as is the case now, NBA owners locked out the players. Jackson spent that time learning the business of the NBA, attending meetings, and staying involved. But as a free agent journeyman with no previous multi-year deals, Jackson had a lot at stake and lost in limbo.
“Nerves were kicking. You lose a year of salary, a year of your career. You don’t know what’s going to happen after the lockout ends,” Jackson said. “It was tough. I understand what some of the players are going through today. I was that free agent guy finally getting an opportunity to play, finally getting a shot at a guaranteed contract for the first time with more money than I ever made. I had played the best I’d ever played. And then to have the lockout come? It was scary, but that’s the nature of the business and I was still confident that I had a few more years left in me.”
Jackson was retained, even after the Spurs made a number of changes, bringing in veterans like Mario Elie and Jerome Kersey. He even started through the first few games of the season, which he jokingly pointed out at the mention of the Spurs 6-8 start (he was benched in favor of Mario Elie as the Spurs won a key game that sparked their turnaround).
A move to the bench might seem like a demotion for many, but it steadied Jackson’s play and underlies what made that team, and subsequent Spurs championship teams so special — everything was about the good of the team and winning.
“With a team like the one we had, there was never any doubt that it was special. It was the type of people we had that allowed us to make that run,” Jackson said. “We were students of the game, we understood our roles, and there were no issues with playing time or stuff off the court.”
During that run, there was of course the Memorial Day Miracle, and Avery Johnson’s clinching shot, but there was also Jackson closing down the Forum, and then the Blazers, and a big opening night against the Knicks. And, of course, the headshaking, to which he laughed when asked about it.
“That just happened; I didn’t come up with it or anything,” Jackson said. “The more playing time I had, the more opportunities I got to shoot the ball, the more my confidence grew — especially in the big games. They were just exciting times and it came out instinctively.”
That swagger is how players like Jaren Jackson or Gary Neal can look All-Stars and All-NBA players in the face and not blink. It’s a mindset inherent in such players, but also nurtured by the Spurs and Gregg Popovich.
“You have to give a lot of credit to Coach Pop, his coaching style, and philosophy,” Jackson said. “He instills It in every player — especially guys coming in just trying to sustain or establish a career, guys not drafted, or not getting respect from previous teams. Pop has a knack for recognizing specific skill sets and brings out the best in these players.
“He allows for that player to have confidence by encouraging you to play at a high level, to relax out there. I think it’s the same with guys like Gary Neal. I heard about his time in college, and playing overseas, and how he got to where he is, coming up through the summer league. He’s a confident player that took advantage of a legitimate opportunity, and those are the attributes the Spurs look for.”
Those are the attributes that allowed Jackson to contribute to an NBA championship.
After the initial shock and celebration of winning an NBA championship, Jackson said he came to reflect on his career and his path.
“I thought about all the places I played, playing in the minor leagues, how things were in college, not starting until my senior year, going undrafted, getting cut,” Jackson said. “I thought about the times I considered going into the workplace, or going back to school. All that stuff motivated me. I’m proud of my path and all that I overcame.”